Pirelli is struggling. Formula One drivers had a chance to test the different compounds for the 2021 tires during the Bahrain Grand Prix practice sessions, and, at the moment, the prognosis is not good. In fact, it seems like we have a redux of the 2020 placeholder compound, which was almost universally hated. What the hell is going on?
Pirelli is making a pretty big change as we head into F1. Next season’s tires will be 18 inches, but it was supposed to be be accompanied by a pretty significant amount of testing. We’re talking 25 days of testing just to make sure these bad boys are ready to go for next year.
As with most things, though, that plan was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Which means teams were pretty much rolling blind into the Bahrain practice sessions.
Some of the sport’s key drivers are unimpressed, though. Lewis Hamilton had a hell of a lot to say, even though he tried to bite his tongue:
We’ve had the same tire for the last two years. At the end of 2019 they brought a new tire, which they normally do. And it was quite a bit worse. So then they just said, ‘Okay, well now we just keep the tire that we had from last year.’
So they’ve had two years now to develop a better tire. And we’ve arrived with a tire that’s three kilos heavier. And it’s like a second worse per lap.
And I know for the fans, that doesn’t really make any difference. From a driver point of view, we’re working with brands and partners who are at the forefront of technology, and elevating and moving forwards.
And if you’re going back after two years of development, I mean, I don’t know what’s happening. So it definitely doesn’t feel good out there. And it’s a worry.
I prefer to just stay on these tires. If that’s all they’ve got, and that’s the best they can do, which it clearly is, we’d be better just to stay with this tire.
Red Bull Racing driver Alex Albon agreed but had less to say: “They’re slow, and they’re not really very grippy. I reckon they were over a second off what we have now, which doesn’t bode too well. We’ll see how it goes.”
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo noted that he thinks Pirelli is trying to make the tire structurally safer but that they felt “weaker so there is a bit less grip.”
Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari was another driver with some harsh words. “They were not a step forward,” he said. “The opposite pretty much. Probably worth a shot, but I hope we don’t see these tires again. They are quite a lot worse compared to the tires that we currently run.”
When asked whether he’d rather stick with the 2019 tires or upgrade, he added the following:
If that one is the only option for ‘21, then absolutely, I would love to stick with the ‘19 tires.
I think as long as we don’t have a tires that gives us anything that the current one doesn’t give, such as less overheating, or a better chance to fight each other, we shouldn’t get onto a different tyre.
This one is worse for sure, and it will make all the problems that we struggle with already only worse.
Pirelli is defending the tires, with its head of racing Mario Isola noting that teams were given fair warning that the new compounds weren’t going to be perfect right from the get-go:
I can understand [the frustration] because consider that they are running cars that are optimized on the current tire, for two years now. They are the same tires we used in 2019. So they have a level of confidence, of preparation, they are able to set up the current tire that obviously is at the end of the life cycle.
Every time you propose a new tire, there are some criticisms, there is a change in balance. I heard a comment — I believe it was a team radio from (Max) Verstappen—saying that he was feeling some understeer. We warned the teams that with the new construction, they could have more understeer. We invited the teams to correct the setups in order to re-balance the car.
Basically, Isola’s argument is that this was merely a test session for the tire construction, to make sure that the compound was working. The whole goal was to collect data. The teams could collect data on the handling of the tires which can then be applied to the development of next year’s car. Pirelli could collect data about tire wear, temperature, and more.
It’s fair of him to note that the 2020 cars feel strange on the 2021 tires because the cars aren’t optimized for that equipment. It’s also pretty reasonable to expect teams will make some design changes to accommodate the new compound.
It sounds like the big issue here is the fact that teams got very little say in the overall development process due to COVID-19. Their first real test session came on the finalized compound just days before December and about three months out from pre-season testing. At this point in the year, most teams will have a strong 2021 prototype developed. Throwing in some brand new, differently-functioning tires messes with the data that’s already been collected.
Basically, it just sounds like both parties got the short end of the stick, and neither is happy about it.